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The Trouble with Conspiracy Theories…

Stefan Beck examines the odd allure of the conspiracy theory, from anti-Semitic "cabalists" to 9/11 Truthers, who "may not believe every horror story, but... [believe] that every one is plausible enough to flog without shame."

by
Stefan Beck

Bio

January 30, 2008 - 12:00 am

Radar Magazine has informed its readers, with some degree of sensational overkill, that over one-third of Americans believe “that the government conspired in, or had precise foreknowledge of, the 9/11 attacks.” I dare call it overkill because one never knows the precise language of the polls’ questions, their precise margins of error, or whether “foreknowledge” means only the knowledge that al Qaeda exists and wants to attack the United States. Whatever the case, though, this is a very bad sign.

Conspiracy theories about the so-called Doctors’ Plot or the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (to name but two) have been responsible, directly or indirectly, for more than their fair share of mayhem. Conspiracy theories about 9/11 may not cause deaths, but they tragically misdirect the anger of grieving families away from the real culprits. They also tragically misdirect the efforts of their champions from global problems with real solutions to imaginary problems that lead straight into a paralyzing wilderness of mirrors. G. K. Chesterton was on the right track when he defined madness as the exercise of “mental activity so as to reach mental helplessness.”

The media has proven itself willing and eager to participate in this national embarrassment. Articles about the 9/11 Truth “movement” have appeared in The New York Times, New York Magazine, and other respectable publications. It isn’t often that venerable public figures step in to debunk howling nonsense, but I think John McCain performed a great service by contributing his own words to Popular Mechanics‘s book Debunking 9/11 Myths. At this late hour, it doesn’t matter who believes what about the JFK assassination or the assault on the Branch Davidian compound. It does matter who stokes the flames of WTC paranoia smoldering, like some infernal Yule Log channel, in the Middle East and elsewhere around the world-not least in the United States. “Keeping the home fires burning” has never sounded so sinister.

Many intelligent commentators have offered cogent explanations for the “paranoid style.” I can’t say enough for Daniel Pipes’s book, published a few years before 9/11, on the subject. A common refrain is that people seek order, an “invisible hand,” where there is none, but this problematically assumes two things: that there is no order in the conventional narrative of Islamic terrorists attacking the U.S., and that conspiracy buffs really believe every word of what they say about that narrative.

I have a theory of my own, that these parallel narratives-remote-controlled jetliners, missiles smiting the Pentagon, jubilant Jews videotaping the wreckage for Mossad-offer the seductive consolation of heroism without risk. No less a personage than G.I. Joe once said, “Knowing is half the battle.” For the current generation of conspiracy-minded “investigators,” to consider the more lurid possibilities is to win the day. These YouTube gumshoes risk nothing by, for example, heckling the former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski at the 92nd Street Y. They do buy themselves plenty of cred on the Internet.

It’s understandable. What teenager hasn’t done the assigned reading of Nineteen Eighty-Four and imagined himself Winston Smith in the face of some monolithic, repressive Big Brother? (In his case, please substitute Principal Skinner.) The trouble isn’t the inconvenience, insult, and embarrassment the Truthers cause to figures like Brzezinski or Bill Clinton or anyone else. It’s the insult to those who pursue heroism with risk, those who fight not the conspiracy hiding in “plain sight” but the one that isn’t hiding at all. The 9/11 Truther may not believe every horror story, but he believes that every one is plausible enough to flog without shame. The soldier has to content himself with the one he knows is there. Conspiracy theorizing in this context is nothing less than an abdication of responsibility.

Consider the owl. Radar notes,

[b]ased on the book Them: Adventures With Extremists, by the British writer Jon Ronson, the movie will almost certainly include the stunt that lifted [conspiracy theorist Alex] Jones out of obscurity in 2000 and was, in some ways, a precursor to WAC actions: Carrying a video camera, he infiltrated the highly exclusive Bohemian Grove compound in Northern California, where business leaders and politicians, including several presidents, hold secretive retreats.

Alex Jones recorded participants in the Bohemian Grove retreat prancing like graying, paunchy fratboys around a giant stone owl, which prompted his comrades to find an occult owl hiding in the one-dollar bill-the worst place on earth for a symbol of Satanic evil to hide if it doesn’t want every fool with an Internet connection to find it. I took Occam’s razor to that bill like it was a scratch-off Lotto ticket, and what do you suppose I found? A whole nest of “owls,” i.e., random engraving patterns, along the sides and bottom of the design. From now on, the wise old owl will be my personal symbol of paranoid delusion run amok. What could be more offensive than a bunch of conspiracy fiends scrutinizing their petty cash while American servicemen scrutinize rifle scopes?

I’m not such a starry-eyed cheerleader that I don’t think there are plenty of soldiers who read this stuff in earnest. But they’ve earned their right to go a little crazy. As for the rest of us, we should think long and hard about whether we’re calling in the heavy guns on a mountain, a molehill, or just an entertaining mirage.

Stefan Beck is a writer living in Palo Alto, California. Mr. Beck has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, and other publications. He also blogs for Commentary’s Horizon, The New Criterion‘s Armavirumque, and Jewcy‘s Cabal.

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